Jonathan Ross by Jonathan Ross

What is a plateau, really? It’s a levelling off. And when it comes to health and fitness, plateaus have a universally negative vibe to them. There are, however, good plateaus and not-so-good ones. Knowing the difference can help you feel better about where you are in your journey.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. With weight loss, eventually a good plateau must happen.

2. There are good plateaus and bad ones. Knowing the difference can help you make long-term progress and keep your sanity.

When a Plateau is Good

There are two times when a plateau can be a good thing (and no I’m not crazy).

First, when you’ve made some progress, but it’s taken a lot of effort, it can sometimes be helpful to coast for a bit and take a break from the heavy effort. This will help you get ready for the new effort required to make the next round of changes. For example, in my mother’s journey of losing 170 pounds, she was initially only willing to put effort into making better nutrition choices. She lost 90 pounds, hit a weight-loss plateau and, after some time there, when she was ready, she added physical activity. After plateauing at the 90-pounds-lost mark for a few months, she made her peace with the idea of getting started on the physical side of change. The “break” allowed her to get ready for the next round of change. She never declined, but the plateau gave her time to realize she needed to do a bit more to continue to progress and to allow her to get ready (physically and mentally) to make that choice to change. Personally, I’ve hit a weight-loss plateau that I’ve been happy with for almost two decades.

Second, there comes a time when weight loss must cease to be your goal. It’s a signature feature of all successful weight-loss efforts. It is massively difficult to sustain real and lasting progress and feel the joy of living in a healthy body as long as there is a hyper-focus is on weight. It’s not a standard by which we can find true satisfaction. If you’re obese, then weight loss must be a goal, but it’s not the ultimate goal. At some point in the future that is impossible to pinpoint, a shift away from weight loss and toward living with joy, purpose and happiness must be the goal. The choices that lead to weight loss will ultimately become ones that allow your spirit to shine—to allow you to physically experience whatever it is you love and enjoy about life more fully.

For example, I once had a client who expressed dismay at having hit a weight loss plateau. After beginning at 380 pounds several years earlier, this individual was standing in front of me at 165 pounds (and at about 5’ 9”), expressing concern over a recent weight-loss plateau. Uh…unless your goal is to disappear, your bodyweight will—it must—eventually plateau. In her case, it wasn’t until I introduced the idea that she needed a new focus that it occurred to her that this was necessary. I could see on her face that a “light bulb” had gone on. She’d been intensely focused on weight loss for so long she didn’t know what else to focus on. The take-home here is to start playing with the idea that weight no longer has to serve as your standard of progress as this is a requirement for long-term sanity.

When a Plateau is Bad

There are two times when a plateau is not good. The first is when you’ve made some progress, but aren’t done with your goals. This is kind of like the example above with my mother, but with a big difference. A bad plateau isn’t a rest on the way to the next round of changes; rather than serving as a temporary opportunity to “hit your cruising altitude to let your engines rest,” so to speak, it is characterized by discouragement, frustration and a negative response. This kind of plateau has you feeling like you’re done. You’re exhausted from making changes, but you aren’t where you want to be.

This kind of plateau is often the result of drastic diets, ill-advised cleanses (and they are all ill-advised) or extreme exercise efforts, but it can sometimes be from the mental fatigue of forcing yourself to do things you don’t enjoy. When doing something that is not sustainable and runs counter to optimal physiology, you’re running on willpower, which will run out and your biology will eventually push back and fight any overly drastic, extreme change. Big changes come from a number of small behaviors multiplied over time.

Something Has to Change

The second bad plateau is when your body has adapted to what you are doing with exercise and you feel disheartened because what used to work now no longer seems to. This usually means that your program needs a bit of a nudge—a little more effort has to come from somewhere. It can be more time, more intensity or more frequency, but probably not all of them at once. Most importantly, look beyond your direct exercise efforts. The people who make the most progress are the ones who exercise consistently, but who also move a bit more throughout the day apart from structured exercise. How often during the day do you move? Do you exercise and then spend the rest of the day avoiding activity, because you already worked out ? Try adding some movement you enjoy into your regular day instead of choosing either exercise or inactivity as the only options.

Know Thy Plateau

Hopefully, we will all eventually plateau at a good level, and learning to know the difference between good and bad plateaus can help you avoid frustration. Just remember that a plateau can simply be a little break on the way to more progress and see it as an opportunity to change something that will bring you closer to your goals.